Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

In Context

Written by: on February 6, 2015

Boarding Schools

I was a Biblical/Theological Studies major at Biola University in the 1970’s. Biola is located in Southern California, the place where the “Jesus Movement” began in the late 1960’s. I was one of those “Jesus Movement” kids, caught up in the Calvary Chapel movement of the day: Christian Rock and Roll concerts, Hippie clothes, Afro Hairstyle, Beach baptisms, Chuck Smith Bible studies – the whole nine yards. I was a counter-cultural freak who went to a theologically conservative college that taught and thought in less informal ways. In reality, I was caught between two worlds. As I look at it now, I can see that one of my influences was trying to contextualize its theology; the other was not. I didn’t see that at the time. One was not right and the other wrong – they were just different, very different, light years apart.

I hated theology classes. They were not practical. They were usually taught by boring professors. And they were always trying to box in God. Even then as a young Christian, I had a hard time with this. On the other hand, I loved studying the Bible, at least at church. We studies Genesis to Revelation. This was good. It was helpful. But eventually, as the movement began to mature, it eventually began to become effected with theological hardening of the arteries. What had once been fresh was now becoming stale. And eventually, the church I went too also began to box God in. I worked at that church for six years. There were some days of glory – and some seasons of night. Eventually, I left – disillusioned, discouraged, and depleted. Churches can do that to people sometimes, both to those who attend and to those who serve. This brings to mind an important question: How does being stung by a church setting affect one’s theology?

I found this week’s reading to be tough and slow until I came to Stephen Bevans’ book. Reading Bevans’ book this week made my heart excited about theology for the first time in quite a while. He writes, “The contextualization of theology—the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context—is really a theological imperative.”[1] Theology is formed in many ways; it flows from the lives of those whose stories are rich and diverse. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. It is shaped through people, through culture, and through experience. Bevans says that contextual theology is both new and traditional, and by its very nature, theology is NOT something that is only owned by Western Christianity. It is also owned by nonwestern cultures. And, declares Bevans, “Christianity, if it is to be faithful to its deepest roots and to its most basic insight, must continue God’s incarnation in Jesus by becoming contextual.”[2] I found this to be beautiful and freeing.

In his conclusion for Chapter 1, Bevans says something that would, I think, make many evangelicals turn in their graves, “Theology today, we can conclude, must be a contextual theology. Several important movements and currents of our times points out aspects in Christianity that make imperative a theology that takes seriously human experience, social location, particular cultures, and social change in those cultures. Pluralism in theology, as well as on every level of Christian life, must not only be tolerated; it must be positively encouraged and cultivated [italics mine].”[3] This is quite radical. So, is our theology supposed to be Biblical or contextual? What about cultural practices about which we are uncomfortable? What about Biblical interpretation that goes against traditional norms? Pluralism of theology – is he serious? Yes, he is very serious. And, yes, contextual theology will make us very uncomfortable. This was music to my ears and to my soul.

For the past year and a half, I have been doing research with Native-American people. This is not an easy task. Regularly, I face closed doors. Native people for the most part do not trust white people, especially Christian researchers. Why? There are many reasons – most are legitimate. The primary reason is obvious: white colonialists committed atrocities against First Nations people groups. And the Church was at the forefront of some of the tragic events, particularly in its attempts to convert the Natives to Christianity. The majority of the evangelism that took place never considered a contextualized approach. Hundreds of thousands of Native children were placed in boarding schools where they were made to cut their hair, dress in Western garb, stop speaking their languages, and renounce their spiritual traditions. Families were torn apart. There was much suffering. There is still much suffering. This is the history, the context into which I come. I heard recently that perhaps three percent of Native-Americans are Christian. It is a “no-brainer” as to why this is.

Would not a contextualized approach have been a better way to work among these people? I would think so. Perhaps it is not too late. Thankfully, there are some better things happening now. The late Richard Twiss speaks to these matters very seriously. He advocates that Native practices ceremonies be incorporated into Christian worship, and He challenges the American Church to think deeply: “It is my conviction that because of Native Americans’ history of suffering and their absence from the evangelical mainstream, the Body of Christ in America suffers from a spiritual low-grade fever.”[4]  His book outlines a better way for Native people to understand the Christian faith, a very contextualized way. Twiss’ book is an important read for all Christians.

The North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS)[5] is an organization that is also working with matters of contextualized theology, particularly for Native people. Their journals are very helpful in understanding the issues and struggles of Christian thought among First Nations peoples. They offer an annual symposium that is very helpful. This year’s symposium will be at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. I hope to attend again this year. Maybe some of my cohort members would like to join me.

Theology is bigger than we think. But we must be committed to an understanding that is beyond our own tradition. God works among all peoples in all ages. We must be willing to cooperate with God. We must contextualize. God help us; God help me.



[1] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Marynoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011) 3.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Richard Twiss, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2000) 18.

[5] You can find information about this fine organization here: http://www.naiits.com.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

10 responses to “In Context”

  1. Bill…
    Gee, my brother-in-law, Mike McLaughlin graduated from Biola in 74 (I think) and my husband went there for one semester before seeing the light (I’m joking) to transfer to where I was at the U of O. So with you on the Calvary Chapel, the thought about theology being boring (I love studying it now!), and the enthusiasm, but lack of spiritual maturity in the movement at that time. A little six degrees of separation happening, again!

    Reading about your insights and research as well as NAITTS (I have several friends enrolled in that program via GFES) I was reminded again of words I heard from Randy Woodley when I was in his American Church History course @ GFES. He asked in a pondering, yet probing way, “What if God’s purpose in the colonists coming to the ‘new world’ was to learn a different way of life from those who lived there?” (a slight paraphrase). Such questions turn us around and give another context other than our own. It challenges the perceived and inherent perspective and objectivity.

    I wonder if one of the gifts of and needs addressed in contextual theology might be the outcome of generosity. That we recognize the breadth of God’s generosity. Thank you friend for your insights and perspectives. Learning with you…

  2. Carol,

    Thank you for your comments. I always appreciate comments on my posts.

    I am learning so much but know so little about Native issues. Sometimes I wonder if I am doing the right thing. It is good to have Randy there beside me. But in the long run, how can a white guy like me have much to say when he has only studied these things for two years? That is my greatest fear when considering my dissertation. But something inside me always makes me remember that there is a reason I got into this subject in the first place. Perhaps I do have something to say, but it might end up being that what I say has nothing to do with what I thought I was going to say in the first place. Is this all part of the doctoral dissertation process? Probably. Can you relate to this?

  3. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Bill! I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t like some of my theology classes either. They were boring and did speak to my context. It is sad that Native-American people’s experience with Christianity was damaging. But I am glad that attempts are being made now to develop contextual approach. Thank you for being part of that. God bless your research.

    • Telile,

      Thank you for your comments. I think there are many similarities between what Western missionaries did in Africa and what they did here as well. There must be room for contextualization. Although it might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar, yet, it is the right thing to do. So often, missionaries try to create converts into their own image. But the truth is that only God can create man in His own image.

  4. Liz Linssen says:

    Thank you for such a touching post. As I read your writing, it echoed what John had written about this week – contextualising the gospel for Native Americans.
    It was shocking to read how Westerners treated these precious people. As you say, we must learn how to contextualise.
    You asked one tough question: “How does being stung by a church setting affect one’s theology?” I think the only way we can survive these stings is through the healing balm of our relationship with God. Drawing into His counsel day by day, and hearing from Him. I know there is no way I would have survived if it wasn’t for the grace and strength He gives.
    The research you’re doing Bill sounds wonderful. God is using you to bring healing into this historic wounds. May God bless you in this important work.

    • Liz,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Forgiveness comes differently for all of us, especially depending on the wounds. God can and does heal our hearts, but it happens over time and is often a long process. I am discovering regularly how deeply First Nations people have been deeply wounded by their histories. Being a white person, I am often seen as a threat and am not trusted by tribal people. I get that, but I also know that healing can happen — but it is in God’s time, not in mine.

      I love the research I am doing, but it is hard and it is a growing experience. If you ever want to know more about these Native-American issues, I would highly recommend a book called “Neither Wolf nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn. This book would begin to give you a glimpse of real American history.

  5. Ashley Goad says:

    Bill, we have yet another thing in common… I hated theology class in seminary. Mind you, I was going to a highly conservative school…but more than that, it was not practical. It was taught, as Mitch wrote, as something you could use to answer questions in trivia games, but not something you could apply to your life. Meh!

    Your last paragraph spoke to my heart:

    “Theology is bigger than we think. But we must be committed to an understanding that is beyond our own tradition. God works among all peoples in all ages. We must be willing to cooperate with God. We must contextualize. God help us; God help me.”

    You said it many times in your post, and you’re right — how often do we put God in a box, and put Him over there? We give Him limits, because we cannot fathom that he truly is the Almighty. It may be contrite, but I spent time in the children’s building today, and Veggietales was playing. “God is bigger than the boogeyman, he’s bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV. Oh God is bigger than the boogeyman, and He’s big enough for you and me.” God can speak and work in all languages, all cultures, all places, and at all times. He’s omnipotent. I think in theology classes, we sometimes forget that. The all-powerful, almighty gets lost. ….

    Clearly you’ve cause me to think, Bill! 🙂

    • Ashley,

      I always look forward to your comments since I know they are going to be honest and real.

      Theology can be a great study or a worthless study. We cannot box in God. Many Native people know God as the “Great Mystery.” How come we evangelicals don’t know Him like that? We have to always explain everything. We have all the answers about everything. Perhaps we have some answers, but we don’t have all the answers. I think of Job standing before God — what a humbling he received! As you said, the proper response to God is to have a contrite spirit. I would also add that we should also be quiet more often about things we do not really know. Sometimes, the best response to a discussion about God is total silence. A good bit of silence never hurt anybody!

  6. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill, thank your thoughts. I was looking forward to reading your post on this week’s reading because Bevans and the other authors, seem to be heating close to home for some of us who are grappling with the contextual topics.
    I appreciate your question, “Would not a contextualized approach have been a better way to work among these people? I would think so. Perhaps it is not too late.” I believe that there is hope but as you have pointed out, it calls for persistence and the will to allow the process of contextualization to help us all.

    Thank you

    • Michael,

      Thank you for your comments. I found the book on contextual theology quite helpful; I will read it in more detail another time.

      I think that most Western missionaries are quite hypocritical. They do not allow other cultures to contextualize, yet they bring in their own cultural baggage and call that spirituality. This is true with many things, but especially with theology. It infuriates me to think that one people group can interpret spirituality and theology for another group, especially when they do not even understand the other’s language. This is especially true for indigenous peoples. We do not respect these people since we think we are better than they are. Isn’t there something wrong with that kind of thinking? There has to be a better way.

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